Cuba and the Left Today

Samuel Farber

Cuba: The Revolution in Peril
By Janette Habel
Verso, 1991, $34.95, cloth.

SINCE THE COLLAPSE of Stalinism important elements of the U.S. radical and socialist left have reconsidered their previous support for the one-party Stalinist-type states that prevailed for many years in Eastern Europe. Given this, it is astonishing that hardly any U.S. left group or well-known leftist writers and activists who supported the Castro regime before 1989 have called for a revision of that support since then.

Most continue to provide a rather uncritical support to the Cuban regime, often accompanied by a high degree of ignorance of the history and character of Cuba’s social and economic structure. This could be attributed to their anti-imperialist stance; but an anti-imperialism that confuses opposition to all forms of U.S. intervention in Cuba with political support for the Castro regime, besides being morally and politically compromised, will in practice weaken the cause of anti-imperialism.

The strong and principled case against U.S. intervention in Cuba would then become dependent on and hostage to the behavior of the Cuban regime, let alone narrowing the potential democratic and self-determination appeal of the anti-interventionist cause.

Abroad, the radical left has tended to be more critical of Cuba’s one-party state. This is exemplified by the French Trotskyist Janette Habel in her book Cuba: The Revolution in Peril. It is to Habel’s credit that she has taken the trouble to actually engage in a serious and detailed study of Cuban society. This, unlike dozens of “tourists of the revolution” who write apologetic articles and books about Cuba based on half-baked clichés and stereotypes about the Third World that sometimes degenerate into outright condescension.

Most insulting of all is the attitude often expressed by foreign supporters of the Cuban regime that economically less developed countries such as Cuba “are not ready” for democracy, just as colonial apologists used to argue that the colonial “natives” were not ready for independence.

Habel’s book is by and large factually sound. I would only single out for criticism her very thin and inadequate treatment of the Cuban regime’s innumerable and systematic violations of civil and political liberties (97-100,2M-205), amply documented in specific denunciations and dozens of reports published by independent organizations such as Amnesty International, PEN and Americas Watch.

Some of Habel’s formulations tend to seriously underestimate the problems in this area as when she asserts that “debate and criticism are open, but this ‘eiderdown democracy” does not give any power to those practicing it” (85). One could reasonably conclude from this that Cubans can, for example, openly criticize Castro’s policies although he will still do whatever he wants. The fact is that many people have been sentenced to prison in Cuba for engaging in this sort of criticism, punishable as a “crime” of contempt.


Most of my disagreements with Habel are on political and interpretive grounds. First, Habel objects to the one-party state (234-235), but she seems reluctant to embrace the conclusion that would flow from her objection: that other political parties must =Zed to exist Habel also continues to endorse left authoritarian formulations that undermine the democratic and libertarian potential opened by her earnest objections to the one-party state.

Thus, she states very early in her book that “only the freedom of information, debate, organization and action within the revolution can curb bureaucratic arbitrariness” (3). But who determines, and by what criteria, which are the boundaries of the revolution?

Habel also endorses Frei Bends claim that democracy must be “substantial” and not formal (235). While there are many political systems that are formally democratic and have little political or economic substance to “fill” those forms, it doesn’t follow that there can be a substantive democracy that is not also formal. There can be no substantive democracy without formal procedures to actually put democracy into consistent practice and to insure that the rights of minorities are protected. In the last analysis, that is the only way in which substantive democracy itself can thrive and survive.

Habel’s book is based on a number of highly questionable Trotskyist and especially Guevaraist assumptions. Like many Trotskyists and some other radical left ideologists, she seems to identify Stalinism solely with its “right-wing” or Popular Front aspects, thus implicitly seeing Stalinism as a “reformist” or at best “centrist” tendency that cannot be revolutionary, i.e. overthrow capitalism. Never mind that traditional Communist parties have on numerous occasions adopted ultra-leftist “Third Period” policies, or that Communist parties have overthrown capitalism in a number of countries such as Czechoslovakia (with the indirect support of Soviet troops), China and Vietnam.

Similarly, she also seems to partake of another notion maintained by a number of Trotskyists that a Stalinist system—independently of whether one analyzes it as “degenerated workers state,” “state capitalist” or “bureaucratic collectivist”—can only be defined as such if it is controlled by a traditional Communist party originally established as a client party of the CPSU. These Trotskyists conclude that since Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their associates did not come out of the traditional Communist parties and did make a revolution overthrowing capitalism, they cannot be Stalinists.

This conclusion leaves out the fact that Castro, Guevara and associates established in Cuba a socio-economic and political system which in every important respect was structurally and institutionally a carbon copy of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including features such as the full nationalization of the means of production, a one-party state controlling all aspects of life in the society including stratified unions, the absence of the right to strike or of any other civil and Political liberties, and an all-embracing secret police and system of neighborhood surveillance to help maintain the regime in power.

Equally ignored is that Castro’s Cuba (with the full agreement and support of Che Guevara as long as the latter was alive) has been, in its repressive policies and societal structure, demonstrably more Stalinist than every single pre-1989 East European state with the exceptions of Albania and Romania.

Thus, for example, if we compare Castro’s Cuba to the former East Germany we will find that the “cradle to the grave’ political control and surveillance exercised by the neighborhood committees and Cuban security services have nothing to envy the former East German Stasi. At the same time, executions have been more common in Cuba than they were in East Germany; and critical writing of the Christa Wolf variety, and the non-violent oppositionists, had relatively greater freedoms and access to the public in East Germany than their Cuban equivalents have been allowed.

With the politics of Fidel Castro and his associates having now been declared outside the boundaries of Stalinism, what are we to make of the obvious heavy hand of bureaucracy that permeates every aspect of Cuban society and that concerns Habel so much?

For Habel and her brand of Trotskyism it is all very simple: the bureaucracy, she argues, heavily influenced by the Russian Soviet model, has interests and politics different from Fidel Castro who acts as a sort of arbiter between the bureaucracy and the masses. Habel suggests a likely alliance of Castro and the masses against the Soviet-inspired bureaucracy, a neat construction that allows her to be anti-bureaucratic and anti-CPSU while not being too hard on Castro (112).

This, however, doesn’t wash with the real Cuban political situation. The Soviet influence on internal Cuban politics was decisively brought to an end by Castro as far back as 1%2 when he smashed the old Communist apparatus led by Anibal Escalante. Since then, when the internal economic policies have been closer to those of the USSR (as during the decade of the seventies), they have been carried out under the exclusive political responsibility of Fidel Castro and were not at all due to internal bureaucratic pressures by elements of the Cuban bureaucracy politically sympathetic to the former USSR.

Castro has initiated and has been responsible for both the Soviet-inclined and Guevaraist economic policies of the past as well as for the current policy that combines internal Guevaraism for Cubans—indeed, a rapidly unravelling Guevaraism—with market economics for foreigners, i.e. a strong emphasis on foreign Investment in tourism and other industries. The present economic policy is designed to grant concessions to capital while minimizing  potential domestic threats to the political system, a more politically self-preserving and cautious strategy than that of the current Chinese government.

In fact, the change from one type of economic policy to another has usually been accompanied by the replacement of the top bureaucrats identified with a defeated policy, such as the disgracing a few years ago of Humberto Perez, the then head of the Central Planning Board (JUCEPLAN) who was sympathetic to the economic policies of the USSR.

Top bureaucrats, whether Guevara-1st or Russian oriented in their economic policies come and go, but Fidel Castro always stays. He is in fact the anchor or linchpin that maintains the cohesion of the system. Who is then in charge?

Habel explains Castro’s authoritarian political behavior in terms of the guerrilla military origins of the revolutionary leadership and its non-programmatic Pragmatism (80). Other analysts of the Cuban Revolution in turn have argued that the politics of the Cuban leadership are to be explained primarily as a reaction to imperialist pressures.

What is common to Habel’s and these other analyses is that none of them take seriously the purposes, ideas and politics of the revolutionary leaders as they have expressed them in hundreds of occasions during the last thirty-four years.

Ever since the processes of “perestroika” and ‘glasnost” began in the USSR, and especially since the collapse of the USSR, Castro has made dozens of speeches addressed to Cuban audiences where he has presented highly elaborate philosophical and political arguments in support of the Stalinist-type one-party state as a matter of political principle.

Castro’s role as the principal source of cohesion for the system and the Stalin-1st intransigence of his pronouncements (and even more so the repressive climate and actions which these pronouncements attempt to legitimate) show that it is Fidel Castro who is the principal obstacle to democratic political change in Cuba and not some unnamed, abstract bureaucratic force presumably counter-posed to him as Habel claims.

Habel’s strategic implication, that the road to a democratization of Cuban society lies in an alliance between the masses and Fidel Castro against the bureaucracy, is thus untenable.


Habel’s politics and especially her economics seem to be more influenced by Guevaraism than by Trotskyism, although in the book’s Postcript written in November of 1990 she seems to retreat somewhat from Guevaraism.

It is important to clarify first the meaning of Guevara’s politics and how it differed from Fidel Castro’s. There is no doubt that at the level of his personal politics Guevara was modest, courageous and sincere compared to Fidel Castro’s duplicity, manipulation and greatly exaggerated sense of his own knowledge and competence in everything from cattle breeding to military science.

Yet, there was absolutely no difference between Castro and Guevara in terms of what are the most important issues from a democratic and revolutionary socialist point of view. Che Guevara supported the model of the Stalinist one-party state no less than Castro and played a major and direct role in the Stalinization of the Cuban Revolution.

Like Castro, Guevara supported the stratification of the unions and the suppression of the right to strike. Perhaps even more than Castro, Guevara advocated a highly centralized economy with absolutely no room for anything even remotely resembling workers control  (not to be confused with the worker’s “participation” advocated by Guevara and the rest of the Cuban leadership in the early sixties.

As stated by the French socialist author KS. Karol in Guerrillas in Power (330): “Che preferred to take shelter behind two myths, both of them imported from the USSR First, after the Revolution, the workers should have no interests other than the acceleration of production in accordance with the overall economic plan; and second, the revolutionary leaders know best how to interpret the thoughts and needs of the working class, from which they themselves have sprung.” (However, we know that Guevara was the medical doctor son of a prominent architect and Castro, the lawyer son of a big sugar landlord.)

It is true that Guevara tended to be closer than Fidel Castro to the “left” rather than the Popular Front side of the Stalinist tradition, and that he was more interested than Castro in opening new revolutionary fronts in Africa and Latin America. But Guevara’s revolutionary zeal and anti-capitalist militance was tied to a political program of reproducing in the Congo and in Bolivia the type of society and political system that he had helped to establish in Cuba.

Would Stalin have merited political support if he had somehow militantly supported bureaucratic revolutions from above attempting to copy the Russian model in China, Spain and Germany?

In addition, Guevara’s personal political integrity was not necessarily a positive trait for a ruler or administrator in a one-party Stalinist-type state. A case could be made that given such a state a corrupt ruler or administrator is to be preferred since his other “personal weaknesses” may help to ‘lubricate” and soften what would otherwise be a very harsh and ruthless rule.

To put it in historical terms, would, other things being equal, honest, incorruptible, more “left” inclined (at least in the 1918 Brest Litovsk controversy) Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, have been a more democratic and humane ruler than Joseph Stalin? I frankly doubt it.

This is the political context in which we have to understand Guevara’s support for moral incentives and opposition to too great a reliance on material incentives. The debate of moral versus material incentives is a debate among those in power as to the best methods to get others—the workers and peasants—to produce more.

Moreover, the historical record of contemporary Communism strongly indicates that it is not the Guevaraist and Maoist “left” Communists who are likely to propose democratic changes and reforms. Instead, those types of reforms are usually proposed by pm-market technocrats and bureaucrats who—for their own selfish reasons.—favor the weakening of state controls.

Given Guevara’s strong support for the one-party state and his opposition to union autonomy and workers’ control, his advocacy of moral incentives could not mean anything else but a pernicious way of squeezing the working class and the peasantry even more than under the policy of so-called “material’ incentives. Ultimately, Guevara’s theory cannot be separated from his monkish socialism, with his ascetic views and generally contemptuous attitude to the completely legitimate desires of the workers for more material goods.


In Guevara’s socialism, which 1 will call “primitive state communism,” the principal conflict is between state control of the economy and the market. It is true that Guevara favored a policy of egalitarian distribution. But this is not to be confused with workers’ and peasants’ democratic power and control. And that is precisely the nub of the matter.

For a democratic and revolutionary socialism anchored in the tradition of classical Marxism, the issue of the market and of distribution are important but subordinate to the most central issue of all, a working-class power and control of society, and particularly of the economic surplus, that can only become real in a social system with substantive and formal political and economic democracy.

A historical illustration can be helpful From the October Revolution in 1917 to mid-1918, Russia witnessed the exercise of workers’ power through the democratic multi-party soviets and through workers’ control of production on the shopfloor, combined with relatively little planning and centralized state control of the economy. With the onset of the Civil War and the establishment of the economic policies of War Communism in mid-1918, the tables were turned: soviet democracy and workers’ control of production almost disappeared while there was a huge increase in the state nationalization of the means of production and in efforts to abolish the market and establish centralized economic planning.

Which period was closer to socialism? Here is where Guevaraists and democratic revolutionary socialists would provide sharply opposed answers.

For “primitive state communism” private property per se is the enemy. In his speech of July 26, 1991 Fidel Castro, in true “primitive state communist’ spirit, stated that the basis for capitalism had been established as far back as the days of Homer’s Greece! The logic of “primitive state communism” is to nationalize everything that it can politically get away with. This logic led Cuba to become probably the most nationalized of the twentieth century Communist economies.

Marx and Engels had assumed that the abolition of the market as the principal regulator of economic activity would take place in the context of an extended factory system where production was already conducted in a collective rather than an individual basis. In his pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Frederich Engels underlined the importance of a key contradiction of capitalism, namely the “contradiction between socialised organization in the individual factory and social anarchy in production as a whole.”

This key contradiction would only be solved, according to Engels, when the proletariat “seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production .. into public property,… and gives their socialized character complete freedom to work itself out Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible.”

From this perspective it would be nonsense to nationalize small farms and various other forms of petty commodity production, whether agricultural or industrial. It would also be nonsensical to attempt to suppress the workings of the market through police methods rather than to gradually diminish the role of the market through what we hope would become the increasing economic superiority of a socialized and democratically planned sector of the economy.

In the case of Cuba, “primitive state communism” led to the unpopular abolition of the farmers’ markets. These markets which involved the free sale of production left after the private farmers, currently in control of only eight percent of arable farm land, had met their compulsory deliveries to the state, were legal in Cuba from 1980 to 1986.

The question of permitting their reopening has become a central political issue in Cuba with more importance in people’s minds than what it merits in practice. The Guevaraists are totally opposed to the farmers’ markets. In her Postcript, Habel seems to waver on this issue, although the overall political thrust of her book should have led her to side with the Guevaraists.

Critics of the farmers’ markets have complained about price gouging and peasant enrichment However, it is not at all clear the degree to which high prices were a result of “greed” and to what extent they reflected the very high cost of doing business under conditions where the state has a virtual monopoly of all inputs and of ancillary facilities ranging from storage to transportation.

In any case, instead of trying to solve the possible excessive enrichment of petty commodity producers through policies such as effective taxation—which should be no problem for an omnipresent state such as Cuba’s—the state resorts to police suppression of market activities which only contribute to push “black market” prices up beyond the reach of the poor and does not eliminate these market activities.

In the context of a democratization of Cuban society, socialists should advocate that the factories and all other enterprises based on the principles of social production should be socialized under workers’ and peasants’ control, not privatized.

But what about small farms, artisan production and other forms of individual or small-scale production and distribution activities? As in the case of the farmers’ markets, the Cuban bureaucratic state currently maintains a stranglehold over individual and small-scale production and distribution, thus greatly diminishing the production of agricultural and artisan industrial goods which could considerably ease the poverty of the population. Those types of activities should be privatized, or if possible, organized in truly voluntary cooperatives.


In her analysis of Cuba’s economic problems (for the most part concerning the situation prevailing before the current “special period,” since the original edition of Habel’s book was published in French in 1989), Habel blames the decades-long criminal blockade imposed by U.S. imperialism on the island republic. She also singles out the international market forces that have negatively affected the Cuban economy (Chapter 1).

Undoubtedly, these factors played an important role in creating Cuba’s economic problems. However, in her efforts to attack traditional soviet-style Communism and go easy on Castro’s neo-Communism, she greatly overstates the negative effects of Soviet aid and understates its critical role in keeping the Cuban economy alive, as evidenced by the sharp crisis that the Cuban economy is currently experiencing.

While emphasizing these external factors as the source of Cuban economic ills, Habel says little about the internal factors that made a major contribution to the poor performance of the Cuban economy.

Is it an accident that the successes of Cuban economic performance, in the delivery of education, health and social security services, and its failures in the areas of food, consumer goods, housing and transportation, are precisely in the same areas in which other Communist economies tended to succeed and fail? Isn’t there a connection between this pattern and the highly centralized and bureaucratic structure of the Cuban economy, which for the most part copied already existing economic arrangements in the European and Asian Communist worlds?

The Guevaraist model that Habel prefers, with its heavy emphasis on highly centralized bookkeeping and administration, is even less able to address the classical problems of lack of local initiative and poor motivation that has plagued the Stalinist economies. Preaching morality to the working class and peasantry cannot substitute for their lack of power at the local as well as at the national level.

It is precisely this lack of power that systematically creates apathy, lack of interest and indifference among the producers, not the lack of the appropriate values and ideology as both Guevaraists and Maoists tend to think.

As for the Guevaraist emphasis on voluntary labor there is no such thing as truly voluntary labor under the conditions of the one-party Stalinist-type state where one’s “political merits” are an essential prerequisite to getting ahead in the society, whether in terms of job promotions, access to durable consumer goods, travel abroad or attending the university. Moreover, voluntary labor is economically harmful particularly when, as it happens in most cases, workers are assigned to labor in occupations other than their own, most typically the so-called “microbrigades” in construction or work in agriculture.

While refusing to address the reasons for the poor motivation of agricultural workers and people’s unwillingness to work in rural areas, the Cuban government is currently engaged in a typical Maoist or Stalinist “shock program,” sending city people en masse to the countryside for short periods to help with farm work. This is hardly an efficient method of increasing farm production, since resources must be spent on transport in feeding training and building temporary housing for transplanted urban workers.

Besides, the urbanites do not have time to learn the new and very different skills involved in agricultural work. This kind of shock program causes tremendous disruption in the urban economy, and creates justifiable resentment among the urbanites who have been “volunteered” for agricultural labor.

According to Jorge Lezcano, leader of the Communist Party in Havana, more than 100,000 people (out of a population of approximately two million) were sent to the countryside from the Havana metropolitan area for fifteen day periods between July 1990 and April 1991. Interestingly, Lezcano agreed with the interviewer from Granma that “the positive experience in all of this was the political-ideological result in the masses,” which was more important than the economic results obtained. He reasoned specifically, that people who complain on street corners and in waiting lines would now understand how difficult it is to produce food (Granma, April 11, 1991, 3).

Marx and Engels wrote about the abolition of the division of labor assuming that this would become possible under the conditions of a very high productivity of labor based on the unfettered development of technology and the forces of production under the political and economic rule of the working class. The attainment of such a goal would be the crowning achievement of rationality and freedom.

The Maoist and Guevaraist attempt to abolish the division of labor by decree under conditions of material poverty signifies an extreme voluntarism that in attempting to ignore and bypass material reality can only bathe source of economic irrationality and political arbitrariness and unfreedom.

July-August 1993, ATC 45